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Job-Seeking In The Game Industry

Posted: April 10th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Soapbox | No Comments »
Interested in a Job?

Interested in a Job?

With my recent foray into realm of job-seeking, it seems I have come full-circle and experienced all sides of the interviewing table. I have been an educator, a contractor / freelancer, recruiter  and now a job-seeker. Yes, the table is indeed rectangular as all good and proper tables should be. (Don’t believe any of that round table nonsense!) I figured I might as well write on each of these perspectives to provide you a more holistic picture. Happiness and satisfaction, however, are not guaranteed.

The Educator

Teachers

How many game industry veterans do we have in Singapore that are willing to lend their wisdom? The answer is zero. So who are teaching these game courses? There are three main types. The first is the educator that is not from the games industry. They basically read a lot of books, try to get the gist of what it’s all about, and do their best to pass it on to the students. This group was especially prevalent six years back when these game courses were just starting to emerge.

The second group is your imported talent. Experts you bring in from overseas to train the local younglings. I am guessing that they are pretty expensive, and you would tend to see them more in degree courses than diploma ones. I do not know the mettle of these foreign talents, never having the chance to be under the tutelage of one. I would expect them to be above average given the credentials I have been seeing.

Lastly, you have the half-baked potatoes. This is the group I belong to. Sure, we have some experience, but wouldn’t call ourselves experts by any measure of the word. We are simply the only locally available alternative. There are a bunch of us roaming about between the institutions, and most teach on a part-time basis to supplement our other work. Oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had retirees like say, Miyamoto, to spread their wisdom.

Students

Right, teachers are a problem. The next problem is students. Unfortunately, the words “game development” are so interesting that we attract quite a crowd, most of whom are more interested in the “game” part than the “development” part. The other sad thing is that these students are under the impression that once they graduate and have their fancy piece of paper, they are industry-ready. The sad truth is that you are only really ready if you are self-motivated enough to pick up skills on your own. An optimistic approximation would label about 20% of the cohort of a typical diploma program as industry-worthy.

If I could fail the other 80% and save future employers needless pain and frustration, I would. Luckily for them (the students, not the employers), I was told I cannot. The almighty bell-curve has to be respected. So what happens? Curriculum gets watered down, so that these students can “pass”. Life becomes easier. 3D graphics too hard? Let’s just stick to 2D, shall we? Maybe you don’t really have to learn A* when a turn-left algorithm will do? The end result is  a lot of complaints from students and industry alike that the courses are not providing enough foundation. *sigh*

If you are a student and wondering why it’s so damn hard to get into say – Digipen, this is the reason why. They are weeding out the 80% who really have no place in a games development course. Harsh, but you have to respect them for it. At least they have standards.

Course Management

We already know the curriculum woes that result from a weak student body. There are also other pressures, like pressure from industry. These well-meaning institutions decide to take the sensible approach and go out to ask game development companies what they need. What do they get in response? Everything under the sky! We need Unity3D, C++, C#, Java, Flash, Objective C, Torque (RIP), console devkits, UDK, etc. Every company has different requirements, all of which evolve mutate with time, and given that most course managers don’t have a grounding in the game development process, what are they to do? Who are they to turn to? Hell if I know.

The Employer

I have helped a few of my clients to interview potential employees in the past. Bear in mind that these are all SMC’s (small-medium companies), so it might not apply to the big boys. Recruiting in Singapore is hard. Why is it hard? Because there is nobody out there! You can put out an ad in the papers or any number of job recruitment sites. What do you end up with? A ton of resumes from generic people who have no game industry experience, no game-related academic qualifications, and likely don’t even play games themselves. This is even so if you highlight and boldface these as requirements. Oh, and you also get a healthy number of applications from India and China.

So after you weed through the mountain of resumes and find the handful of people who might have some inkling about what the job is about, you call them in for an interview. There are many points of failure in this process. The first hurdle is confidence. We get interviewees that are so nervous and/or quiet that we feel sorry for them. Do we hire them because we feel pity? No.

Then there’s the portfolio. There is no excuse not to have a portfolio. If you are a programmer, write some code. If you are an artist, draw something. We don’t really care if you have a degree or a diploma with 3.8 GPA. We want to see what you have done and how you think. That is all that matters. If you don’t have it, you don’t matter.

After that, there’s the test. I designed a practical programming test for one of my previous clients. I thought it was fairly straight forward – programming 2D behavior with the rendering, input and general framework already written for them. Sadly, very few even got past the first step of the test, which was to call a function which I wrote for them, in response to an input event. Do I really want to hire anybody who can’t even figure that out in an hour?

I recently went through the experience from the other side. A potential employer (quite a large company) gave me a written test. It was basically on optimization (by optimization we mean bitwise operators), C++ and OpenGL. It was a two and a half hour test, and was fairly challenging. I shudder to think of the applicants who went through my test sitting for this one. Maybe most people don’t make it through this test? Apparently so. I have an interview on Tuesday.

While the employee market is sparse, the intern market seems to be thriving. Almost everywhere I go, I run into interns. Oftentimes, they are my former students. You would think that it would be a simple matter to hire interns, train them up, and hire them as full time employees when they graduate. Not so easy! There’s this thing called the Army which sucks up all these interns right after they graduate and holds them in stasis for two years, possibly with brain decay. It turns out that females are immune to this monstrosity, but they are so rare in this line of work. So if you are a game developer of the fairer sex, know that everybody loves you, and not just for your stunning good looks.

Job Seekers

I entered the job market with two objectives in mind. First, I want to move overseas. Second, I want to move into game design. Any job that fulfills either criteria and opens the possibility of later expansion into the other, I will happily entertain. With that plan in mind, I jumped.

The Game Design Path

There are precious few companies in Singapore that are hiring game designers AND have some sort of way to get me deployed overseas in the future. Most of these are the bigger boys. Out of these large wealthy companies, I only fancied a couple. This is largely because I went for interviews with a lot of these companies in the past and the culture did not appeal. Why did I go for these interviews, you might ask? Headhunters called, and as long as somebody calls, I’m always happy to talk and gather intelligence. Well, out of the two that I kind of liked, neither were hiring designers. I sent my resume in anyway, and received no response. They are probably snickering away at this crazy programmer who thinks he’s a designer.

The only other company I approached was one whose culture would allow me to travel. The nice people there did respond, and helpfully suggested I look for Tech Director positions or something more befitting my experience. After I explained the whole game design spiel, they probably felt I smell too funny to hire. What they did tell me is that they felt I would probably find myself dissatisfied with entry-level game designer salary as compared to what I can draw freelance, and end up leaving. I have to admit that it’s a very good rational reason, given that I’m Singaporean, and all Singaporeans love their $$$.

The Overseas Path

I discovered that there are international recruiting agencies that cater specifically to the game industry. That certainly wasn’t there the last time I went job hunting. So I signed myself up and a nice British bloke called me after a day or two to clarify some details and lay some expectations. “Very professional!” I thought, much impressed. I never heard from him again, ever.

After similar experiences from a couple others, I can unscientifically conclude that recruitment agencies do not work. Well, not in this way anyway. The only recruiters that have managed to get me job interviews fall into two categories. The first is the kind that come and look for you (i.e. the headhunters). The second are those that have a vacancies that they are looking to fill and post ads everywhere.

Recruiters aside, where do I find job vacancies? Typically they are places like the Gamasutra job section, the game development group in Linkedin, personal referrals (God bless their souls), etc. One thing about these vacancies is that most of them are looking for people specifically in the States, or specifically in Europe. Why? Because immigration is hard. There’s a limit on the number of green cards issued, so overseas labor is unnecessarily complex to hire, not to mention the risk. In many cases, especially the smaller companies (which I love so much), I offered to offset some of that risk by relocating at my own expense. Gotta give some to get some!

This is not the end of my master plan. After my current project is wrapped up, if I still haven’t found a job that I like (never settle for a job you don’t like), I will travel myself to these Mecca’s of game development and see what I can find on the ground. This is the correct way to do it, or so I’ve found out. You can’t simply send out your resume and expect to land something worthwhile. Until I have freedom to fly, I’ll test that theory and get back to you if I disprove it. Not like I have anything to lose.

Freelance/Contract

This is so easy to do that I am wondering why there are not more people doing it. Everybody wants to go “indie” and set up their own company, or they want to enroll in the rat race and be a cog in some big corporation. Freelancing provides a great lifestyle, pays pretty well, and supposedly gives you no sense of security whatsoever. So why on earth would I want to move away from it? I’m bored, and I want change. Me and stability don’t see eye to eye. Me and challenge – best buddies!

So if you want to be a successful freelancer, what should you do? The first step is to find a full-time job. “What?!” I hear you cry. Freelancing is easy but it’s not thaaat easy. First you have to have the skill. You also need some sort of credible portfolio that includes published works. The place to get both is in a full-time job. Having had the fortune of starting out when the game industry in Singapore just came out of the womb, my first full-time job was a nearly unpaid full-time job. I simply treated it as school, without the school fees. Self-rationalization is a skill.

The next thing is hooking up with clients. How do you do this? Networking. What is networking? It’s basically talking to everybody and anybody you meet. Go to IGDA chapter meetings, drinking sessions, networking sessions, product launches. Dish your namecard around, let everybody know what you are doing but don’t solicit business unless a “mutually-beneficial opportunity” happens to surface. Just get to know people, preferably personally as well as professionally. Chances are, nobody will throw themselves at your feet begging for you to work for them. But wait two to five years, and suddenly you get this call or referral, and you know your efforts have paid off.

You will also need a website, like this one. From this website, you can see a good sample of the projects I’ve done in the past, learn more about what I do, and even what sort of person I am. To top it off, I have all sorts of useful essays on things that help in game development such as this, the article you are reading now. Do your search engine optimization and make sure you can get Googled. Link it to Facebook, LinkedIn, and whatever other social networking thing you have. Be active and keep it current but do not spam useless stuff. You have no idea how many people have contacted me simply because of this website. Sure, some of them are weirdos, but most have some form of legitimate business to conduct.

Now that you have the clients, you have to manage them. The secret to freelancing successfully is to always have 2-3 projects ongoing at any one time. If you desire some measure of stability, one of those projects can be teaching at an educational institution. Why multiple projects? If you have been doing your homework and developed your skill, you should now be able to work many times faster than the average grunt. A lot of the time, however, will be spent waiting. Waiting for art, waiting for approval, waiting for design decisions, etc. So while you are waiting, why not do another project? If I work full-tilt, 3 projects are not a problem, and I don’t even have to work weekends (most of the time). Sometimes (like now), I drop down to one, just to have breather and smell the roses. Quality of life vs quantity of money – you decide.

Now the biggest secret behind freelance success? There are no other freelance game programmers in Singapore! There used to be a couple of others around, so we could chuck excess work back and forth, but the others have since found other pursuits and now I am exiting as well. OMG!!! Can you say power vacuum?! That said, there are companies that offer contract services, but people often reason that freelancers will be cheaper than hiring these companies. Partially true. We don’t have overheads. Office rental is – $10 a day for a venti vanilla latte plus a snack at Starbucks. Don’t have to pay snooty employees. Nothing!

At the same time though, don’t undercharge. A student once asked me how much I charge per project. I said it depends on the project and it’s a trade secret anyway. The real answer is that it depends on demand. If you are getting more jobs than you can handle, charge more because you are obviously too damn cheap for the value you provide! It has less to do with how much you think your time with worth than how much they think your services are worth. I also like to charge per feature rather than per hour. This lets the client pull things in and out of the project as it progresses, as they are wont to do anyway, and you get to quote them on every single change. I also charge less for games that I think will be particularly portfolio friendly (here’s looking at you, giant robot with guns game – you heartbreaker!), or that I simply find more fun to work on. My business, my rates!



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